Bryan Murray, a longtime NHL coach and general manager who helped turn around the Washington Capitals and took the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Final, has died at 74.
He was diagnosed in 2014 with colon cancer that he was told was incurable and became an advocate for awareness and early detection. Murray worked that season and another as general manager of the Senators, who confirmed his death Saturday.
“Bryan was one of the greatest men that the game of hockey has ever known and also a great father, mentor and teacher,” Senators owner Eugene Melnyk said.
Murray served as general manager in Anaheim, Florida, Detroit and Ottawa and coached in Washington, Detroit, Florida, Anaheim and Ottawa. He won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year with the Capitals in 1983-84 and reached the Cup Final with the Senators in 2007.
“Bryan Murray’s strength and character were reflected in the teams he coached and the teams he built over decades of front-office excellence,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The Capitals had not been to the playoffs in their first eight years of existence before making seven consecutive postseason trips under Murray. Former player Craig Laughlin described Murray as a players’ coach with an old-school approach and a knack for managing personalities.
“He was an absolute players’ coach that in my career you would go through the wall for because of your respect for him as a person and as a hockey coach,” Laughlin said. “He was just an unbelievable guy where as a player you could sit down and have a beer with your coach and talk hockey, talk family, talk sports, talk anything and he was a guy that was there for you.”
David Poile, now Nashville’s GM, inherited Murray as coach when he was GM of the Capitals and said he learned more from him than he taught. Murray began his adult life as a gym teacher, and that translated well to coaching.
“He really saw basketball in terms of a lot of the plays that they used that could be integrated into hockey,” Poile said. “He really loved just the daily interaction with the players, being on the ice, being behind the bench, setting the strategy for the game and how the team would play. I really think that if there’s such a thing as what you’re born for, I think Bryan was born for coaching.”
Murray coached 1,239 regular-season and 112 playoff games over parts of 18 seasons. Murray made the playoffs in 12 of his 13 full seasons as head coach.
He last coached in 2007-08 and was Ottawa’s GM until stepping down to an advisory capacity last season because of his health. Murray worked in the NHL in some capacity for 35 consecutive seasons, making far more friends than enemies along the way.
Trading barbs with referees was a particular habit of Murray’s, though it had a purpose.
“He sort of tried to take the pressure off the team by doing stuff and yelling and screaming at the referees and having fun with them to alleviate some of the pressure that we had,” Laughlin said.
Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr, who worked with Murray in Florida, called him “a great friend and a mentor to many of us in this business.” Hall of Famer Larry Robinson said Murray’s death made for a “sad day for hockey.”
“My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Murray family,” Senators captain Erik Karlsson tweeted. “Thank you for everything Bryan. You gave me the chance to be who I am today.”
Murray said he wanted his legacy to be cancer awareness. When his fellow GMs honored him at their annual March meeting in 2015, nephew Tim Murray and others said they went to get a colonoscopy after learning about Bryan’s diagnosis.
“He made that his passion for everybody to get on board and just to realize that this is so important and this is a situation if you did something like this on a regular basis that this could be a preventable cancer,” Poile said. “From that standpoint, he was tremendous. I think he’s probably saved lots of lives because of what he’s done in the past couple of years.”
Laughlin said Murray was one of the first player-friendly coaches at a time when others were “flexing their muscles” as strict tacticians.
Even opponents and rivals respected Murray, who said in 2014 he felt bad that he couldn’t respond to colleagues’ messages about his cancer diagnosis fast enough.
“While his warmth and dry sense of humor were always evident, they were accompanied by the fiery competitiveness and determination that were his trademarks,” Bettman said. “As we mourn Bryan’s passing, we celebrate his many contributions to the game — as well as his courage.”